She’s forged a career on screen, so why has Sarah-Jane Potts returned to the stage after 20 years? She tells all to Sarah Freeman.
It was last new year that Sarah-Jane Potts began her campaign.
While the Bradford-born actress, best known for starring in Kinky Boots, had appeared in countless films and TV shows, the last time she had worked on the stage was in 1994 as a 17-year-old. Having just turned 40, she reckoned it was time to flex her acting muscles in live theatre and quietly made a resolution.
“With telly you can easily find yourself falling into the grip of laziness,” she says. “You know if you make a mistake you can just start again. In theatre there is no one to get you a cup of tea after 15 minutes. In theatre there is an extra level of pressure which just doesn’t exist anywhere else. I decided that’s what I needed.”
Unlike most New Year promises, Potts’ resolve didn’t waver and she soon found herself at Exeter’s Northcott Theatre getting to grips with Harold Pinter’s Betrayal opposite Nick Moran.
“It was a baptism of fire, although I am not sure I realised it immediately. The rehearsal process gives you a false sense of security.
“On day one there is no pressure. You have a blank canvas and that feels liberating. Then by week three the panic sets in and you doubt that it can ever be ready.
“On opening night I was standing in the wings waiting for the light on the cue box to turn from red to green. I remember thinking, ‘You are 40 years old, your car is outside, you could just go. If you walked out of here right now, what’s the worst that can happen?’ And then the light did change and suddenly something propelled me onto the stage.”
Potts admits that she hated the first week of performances, but whenever nerves threatened to overcome her she would try to remember the words of her husband, fellow actor Joseph Millson.
“He kept telling me, ‘The audience are not 450 lions and you are not fresh meat’. He was right, but when you are alone out there on a stage you take some convincing.”
After Exeter, Potts’ desire to prove herself on the stage led her to New York with off Broadway productions of the Tennessee Williams classic A Streetcar Named Desire and Macbeth and now back home to Yorkshire and to Northern Broadsides
At the time, artistic director Barrie Rutter was casting for Blake Morrison’s For Love or Money. Adapted from Alain-Rene Lesage’s savage 18th-century comedy Turcaret, Rutter immediately wanted Potts to play the high society Rose in this tale of monstrous wealth and whopping lies, but she had her eye on a different role.
“I really resisted playing Rose at first, it was completely out of my comfort zone. I tend to play straightforward, naturalistic characters whereas she is totally melodramatic and completely over the top.”
With the production – and Potts – having won rave reviews Rutter’s confidence in his new recruit was well placed. The play opened earlier in the year and comes back to Yorkshire on tour.
The last night night will be at York Theatre Royal next month and it will be a poignant final curtain, marking not only the end of the tour, but Rutter’s last in charge of the company he set up 25 years ago.
Having failed to secure the Arts Council funding he wanted to realise a number of big projects, he announced he would be stepping down and his departure will leave a big hole in Broadsides, the company known for bringing a northern voice to classic works. “It does feel quite emotional, but I admire Barrie for being true to who he is. He has a big reason for leaving Broadsides but has also been brilliant to work with and yes, a force of nature.”
So too is Potts. Growing up in Bradford, her nearest school was Buttershaw. The estate it called home had been the setting for Rita, Sue and Bob Too and back in the early 1990s the school wasn’t known for its academic rigour or good standards of behaviour.
“I went, but I immediately knew that I had to get out,” says Potts. “One of my best friends was a pupil at Intake in Leeds. It wasn’t a stage school, but it did allow you to do drama and dance alongside the usual national curriculum subjects. I went to see a production of Jesus Christ Superstar and thought, ‘This is where I need to be’.”
The only problem was that Bradford Council refused to transfer her education funding to the Leeds authority. Potts was undaunted.
“I went to the local paper and they really got behind my campaign. Eventually the council agreed to meet me and I wore them down. They said they would fund my place, but not the transport costs to get there.
“It was a victory of sorts, but my parents didn’t earn very much and they couldn’t afford for me to get four buses just to go to school.
“The reporter – and I owe him a huge debt of thanks – said why don’t we see if the Yorkshire Rider bus company can help.
“They not only promised to give me a travel pass, but they said if any other student from Bradford wanted to go to Intake they would pay for them too.
“The school was on a pretty rough estate, it was about as far from the image of a precocious stage school as it’s possible to get, but it absolutely changed my life.”
After leaving Intake, Potts began working professionally, side-stepping the usual route through drama school and perfecting her acting skills on the sets of Peak Practice, Dalziel and Pascoe and The Bill.
“I learnt on the job and it’s worked out fine, but if someone said would you like to attend the classes now I’d jump at the chance. It’s not that I think I missed out, it’s just that I love learning.
“That’s why I wanted to work with someone like Barrie Rutter.
“I have come to the theatre a little late, but the only regret I have is that I never got to work with the director Peter Hall who died earlier this year.
“My husband did and said it was life changing, so I am just trying to do a bit of a knowledge transfer and soak up what he learnt through osmosis.”
Having met her husband on the set of Holby City, Potts says she would like to work with him in the theatre, but has stopped short of drawing up a list of potential future roles.
“We will have to see what happens, because our lives our so busy. This is a second marriage for both of us. I had one son, Joseph had two, so we are one of those completely modern, slightly nomadic, gypsy families.”
While she might have put to bed any hang-ups she might have had about the theatre, Potts says she still suffers from nerves, but over the last 18 months has developed various techniques to overcome it, including yoga.
“I go everywhere with my yoga mat. Adrenaline is not always your friend. You have to stay on the right side of it and yoga helps me do that. ”
For Love or Money, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, November 14 to 18, 01723 370 541, sjt.uk.com; York Theatre Royal, November 28 to December 2, 01904 623568, yorktheatreroyal.co.uk